“Eyna, hey, you didn’t happen to like… poof yourself an actual weapon since last time we worked together, did you?” Shona asks with a sheepish grin.
Beneath the all-encompassing shroud of the Sun’s blinding light, strange in its excitement, the shadows have retreated to the loneliest corners of the world and drawn into themselves. Yet, rather than fade against the intensity of the glare, they’ve grown deeper, darkening in sharp contrast to the pearly radiance engulfing everything else. Between one shrunken patch of inky shade dancing around the trees and the next, I glance Shona’s way and tilt my head. “…No?”
“Oh. Well, y’know, that’s alright! Riding along with Mide wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Aisling shoots me a sympathetic look. “You too? My condolences. Not that I’m convinced it would be much better if we did have weapons. Mide’s probably just really used to it.”
“Hey! It’s a fun ride! You nerds don’t all have to be like that!” Shona fumes.
I have nothing to say to that. I’m the last person in the city who should be insulting anyone for how their magic works, but there’s no way Shona doesn’t know how miserable sliding around like the city’s made of ice is for us nerds.
“…It’s okay. It can even be a little fun once you get used to it. Really used to it,” Mide adds matter-of-factly.
Shona whirls around, folding her arms as she glares down at Mide. “You don’t sound very enthusiastic about it. Harumph.” She puffs out one of her cheeks.
“Oh, is that right?” Mide glances off to the side expressionlessly, doing her best to look innocent as she dodges her friend’s accusatory gaze. “Hey, if you needed my help pitching your deathtrap transit service, you could’ve just asked.” With that, she claps her hands together in feigned excitement and looks back to me and Aisling. “Like I was saying, it’s the best thing since wrought iron!”
“Augh, traitor! How could you do this to me after everything we’ve been through? All the bones we’ve broken together?”
Mide’s cheery expression fades into a weak smile of long-suffering resignation. “For the record, what she means is ‘Mide broke one bone’.”
Shona huffs theatrically, arms folded and nose upturned to the sky. “I can’t believe this. Here I thought we were friends.”
“The clock’s been ticking since I asked my question. Can we do this potentially time-sensitive thing or not?” Aisling presses.
“Right, right! Just getting everything sorted for your next trip on the Shona Express, best deathtrap transit service in all New Claris! I know we’re on the clock,” Shona replies with a skip in her step. “Anyway, I’ve gotten better at, mm, fine-tuning this since last time, so it should be a smoother ride! A bit smoother. Uh, weather aside,” she says, adjusting her sunglasses and wincing when it doesn’t seem to help much.
“That’s a relief. As I was saying, if you’re leading the way, you should carry me. I think I’m the only one who knows where we’re going,” Aisling says.
No one challenges her on that. I just look uncertainly at Mide.
“…Sure. I can take Eyna,” she says after a brief delay, her face betraying none of how she feels about that.
“Cool, cool! Let’s get to it, then!” As we step onto the sidewalk, Shona summons her violin, straightens her back as she readies the instrument on her shoulder, and begins to play. Far from a serene and graceful piece to match her posture, the pattern of long, sharp sliding notes form an intense and menacing song. Crimson sparks crackle through the air around her, their color unchanged by the glaring light above. I tense up, steeling myself for the shock I know is coming. It doesn’t help at all. I yelp and shudder when it bites through me a few seconds later, and even that slight motion is enough to send my feet skidding along the ground.
Aisling flinches and scowls. Mide merely winces for a split-second before she reaches out and grabs my arm, and Shona’s only sign of discomfort comes when she drops her violin — which clatters to the ground before bursting into a shower of red light — and tries to smooth out a few rogue strands of static hair as they rise. It doesn’t work.
“Alright, girls! Let’s make our… I mean, our nameless, themeless, totally-not-a-team’s definitely last show a great one!” Shona cheers.
“Yep,” Aisling says tonelessly, but for a hint of anxious urgency that’s been slowly creeping into her voice since the very moment she learned Isobel and I crossed paths.
I keep quiet. Now that there’s nothing for me to do but wait and see just how bad things are, I’m back to running through the worst-case scenarios in my head. I’m not sure what it says about me or the world that I can’t quite decide if it would be worse to find Isobel dead or charge into the Wound of a Harbinger born from her soul.
Some part of me thinks any kind of life at all must still be better than death, but… no, that’s insane. Yurfaln wasn’t anything like Mr. Enfield. I didn’t eat him when I killed it — I’m sure I didn’t. Harbingers aren’t the people they came from any more than those horrible parasitic wasps are the caterpillars they crawl out of. No, they are, it’s more complicated than that, they take a lot more from those people than food, just…
Ugh. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Both outcomes are awful and I should be thinking about how to keep it from coming to that, but… there’s nothing I can do except hope. Not now. I could’ve killed Aulunla when I first found it, but I didn’t, so here we are.
“Yeah, that’s about right,” Shona sighs wistfully, looking over the expressions of the gathered Keepers. “Maybe we’ll feel better after all this is over.” She skates off into the streets with Aisling in tow. Mide is quick to follow, dragging me along with her.
True to Shona’s word, this trip does feel slightly smoother than the last. She whistles constantly as we move, and the magic around us answers her song. Low notes function like a brake, returning tiny bits of friction to our shoes, while high ones speed us along. It probably helps that the city is almost entirely deserted by now, save for a few cars abandoned in the streets. I’m not thinking much anymore about how we’re getting around or even where we’re going, anyway.
Only about the Sun. Its featureless face staring down at us. Its blazing limbs wrapped around the world. And its beams reflecting off of Mide’s armor, lending her less of a radiant glow than you’d expect, but enough for the light to bounce into my eyes.
“Um, you’re kind of glowing in my face,” I say as we slide down one of the central highways.
“Oh… sorry,” Mide calls back, only a little louder than usual — Shona’s power keeps the breeze I’d expect to be whipping in my ears at this speed away. “…Nothing I can really do about it. This armor is just terrible. Looks straight out of some dumb cartoon, right?”
—What? Is this some sort of trap?
Not long before she dropped out of my life, Grainne told me I’d hate secondary school anyway. She said all the girls there did this thing where they asked pointless questions with some obvious answer, stuff about how bad some color or skirt looked on them, then told everyone about how nasty and mean you were if you actually agreed with them. That was not what I wanted to hear, when my alternative to going to secondary school was dying, but it did sound awful.
Well, if that’s what this is, I can’t be bothered navigating it. Nothing I say to Mide will give her a better reason to hate me than that time I almost ate her.
“…Yes?” I say. “Um, sorry if that’s mean, I don’t want to insult your regalia, but… yes. It’s a weird color for armor to be.”
“Ugh, please! Insult it all you like. For once in my life, let me complain about it to someone who won’t gaslight me about how cool it is,” Mide gripes.
“I can hear you, y’know! I’m right up here! AND IT IS COOL!” Shona shouts over her shoulder.
“Eyes on the road! Get back to steering Shona’s Deathtrap Express!” Mide scolds her. Shona grumbles wordlessly, but does do that.
“Complain if you want. I don’t mind,” I offer. Anything to distract me from racing around in broad daylight during an Embrace.
“Where to even start? I just hate it, really. It’s the least me it could possibly be. Did you know that it’s impossible to make gold into functional arms or armor?”
“I don’t know anything about weapons,” I say.
“Well, it is. You can decorate equipment with gold, with plating or inlay, but there’s literally no point in making anything out of solid gold. It’s way too heavy and way too soft compared to any reasonable metal to forge with.”
“Is your stuff made of solid gold?” That sounds absurd, but I of all people shouldn’t be surprised if someone else’s magic has some bizarre feature they hate.
“No, it’s all very much usable. That’s not the point.”
“Is it just not your color?” All functional issues aside, I’d be pretty upset if my Keeper dress was carrot orange. “You could maybe change it, if you tried. I added this mask to my outfit not long after I started.”
Mide sighs audibly. “What, is it supposed to answer to how I want it to be? I’ve heard that before, but I don’t want it to look like this, I never did, and that’s never changed it. And I mean, I know. I get that it’s not made of gold, it’s made of magic, but… it matters to me, okay? Historic weapons and armed martial arts are, like, my thing, you know? I used to be on the fencing team before I became a Keeper. Went to competitions and everything. Still would if I wasn’t so busy. Well, maybe…” She trails off for a moment.
“Anyway,” she continues, “if this magic is mine, if it’s me the way every other Keeper says, and all it’s given me is weapons and armor and extra skill with using them, I don’t think it’s such a big ask for them to appeal to me, you know? They’d appeal to me if they were functional. And no, gold isn’t even my color,” she groans.
“That… does sound annoying,” I say.
The conversation stalls out as we wind around a street corner, then up the ramp to an overpass heading south — which we slide up without slowing down at all.
“…It’s probably a lot worse for you, isn’t it?” Mide muses faintly, once the road ahead straightens back out. Her voice is light, yet still carries on the breeze rushing past us.
“What?” That drags my attention away from the painful light above.
“You know. Getting saddled with a power like yours, I mean,” she continues, after I let the silence hang for a moment. “You can’t have asked for it to be that way.”
“It’s pretty miserable,” I agree. “I didn’t want anything about my magic to be what it is. Vyuji keeps saying it’ll make sense eventually, I’ll find some way to make it what I want to be. I don’t really believe her.”
Or maybe I do. I’m never quite sure. I hate all of this. I hate what I have to do for the slightest chance at living. But if it’s really the only way the world could have given me to survive, then… I don’t know. I’ll probably hate it less than being dead.
“…So, um…” Mide hesitates, her gaze turned away from me. “Well… I guess… I guess I’m sorry. For coming down on you the way I did, for as long as I have,” Mide mutters. “But, I mean, what else could I have done? How could I have known what you were dealing with? You wouldn’t tell us anything, and Shona kept saying it would be the rudest thing ever if I asked, even after… you did what you did. It… really hurt. Almost like I was gonna die. Of course I thought we should keep our distance. I still kind of do,” she says. There’s a faint little shudder in her arm.
I bite my lip for a few long seconds, staring at the back of Mide’s head from beneath my hood. I’m suddenly glad to be at the back of our little convoy. Talking about this at all still makes me want to hide, to run away and never see or think of her or Shona again, but… it’s not like what she’s saying is wrong, or even really bad, and it’s coming from the last person I’d have expected to show me any sympathy. No, that’s probably Tetha.
And the thought that I’ve hurt other people even more makes Mide’s point even better than anything she could have said.
“You’re not wrong. And I’ve done a pretty terrible job making my case to the world. I understand, I think,” I say slowly.
“And I’m not gonna help Shona pester you to join our team or anything. That’s still a bad idea, at least until you’ve sorted whatever it is you have to do out. But I’m pretty sure you don’t even want that, so… let’s just make sure this time goes better.” She finally turns back to look me in the eye, the shudder in her arm completely stilled. “Sound good?”
“…Mm,” I agree.
Things go quiet again after that. I don’t have too much time to process any of it, though. Too many other things weighing on my mind.
This is still my first time being out during an Embrace — I’ve always spent them hiding in the darkest place I could find. It’s… it’s not that it’s uncomfortable in the same way as a regular too-bright day. It absolutely is, but I could pull my hood over my eyes and live with just the blinding radiance slicing through the sky. The temperature hasn’t even changed much.
No, the worst part is how impossibly, inexplicably alluring the sights above have become.
Whenever I look to the other three Keepers, between still-too-sharp turns around street corners, they don’t seem especially shaken. I suppose they have better things to focus on — Shona and Mide are busy steering, while Aisling barks directions. Only I’m just dragged along for the ride, with nothing to do but wait and try not to look too far up.
I’ve heard the same things as everyone else about how important it is to never observe an Embrace directly, for any length or by any means. Photographs are safe, though they tend to come out abnormal. Telescopes, mirrors, and live recordings are not. I never got why those warnings would need to be repeated so much, unless it was one of those stupid things normal kids dared each other to do. Looking at the Sun on normal days is bad enough.
I guess you have to experience it yourself to really understand. When I first stepped outside, right after the Embrace began, I just… had to see it. Just enough that I had to see what was happening for myself, the way you want to get a better look at any strange movement in the corners of your eyes. I had to know what was happening, see it as more than its harsh radiance flooding the world, and the burning pain of its light in my eyes somehow wasn’t quite enough for me to flinch and pull away until Aisling reminded me.
Even having just felt that pain, holding the worst that could happen fresh in my mind, the Sun still calls to me, drawing my gaze along the radiant trails of its six shapeless, spiraling arms. And the longer we race through the streets beneath its light, the louder its call grows. The more I start to feel like it’s… speaking to me. Offering to share some great secret with me, if I would only throw myself into the sky.
Have you ever wondered why you are?
What is the Sun? What is the world? Why is everything the twisted, nightmarish way it is? Why do Harbingers exist? Why do parasitic wasps lay their eggs in caterpillars so their spawn can eat them from the inside out? Why do plagues wipe out entire cities by making everyone rot to death? Why do little girls die from untreatable illnesses that snatch away everything that makes them smile bit by bit? How do we all just live with it?
Drown yourself in my light, the Sun’s imperative call whispers wordlessly, and I will show you everything. The eyes you offer up to me will forevermore see as I see.
But I don’t want that. I don’t care. I don’t, I insist to myself over and over. I just want to live — as myself, forever — and unless whatever it has to say about why life is so terrible would help me make that happen, it’s no use to me. And it wouldn’t. I already know the price it’s asking.
Halfway to our destination, it even reminds me of that itself.
Soon after we enter the Weald, where the many trees shading the thin streets still don’t do much to keep the light at bay, Shona lets out a long, low whistle, bringing all of us to a surprisingly easy stop.
“Something the matter?” Mide calls, releasing my hand the moment she can do so without sending me flying. Fine with me.
“Yeah, uh, over there, a little ways into the woods…” Shona points. “Is she alright? Should we do something about it?”
I don’t see what she’s talking about at first, but as I tighten my hood, take a few steps closer, and peer through the trees… someone’s there. A woman, I think, standing tall in a bright patch between the leaves.
Staring up into the sky. She’s facing away from us right now, but I know what I’d see if she turned around.
“No,” Aisling says. She clenches her teeth, crosses her arms over her chest, and sighs. “Keep moving. There’s nothing we can do.”
“…Yeah. I guess I know. Just… I know,” Shona says, shoulders sagging.
There’s at least a few of them every time this happens. People caught out too far from shelter when the sky bursts into flame or simply swept up in the Embrace’s pull before they can rush to safety. I’m not sure if it’s always right to call the Eyeless casualties, but… no, it probably is.
Some stare into the sky until they waste away. Some are dragged indoors by rescuers or emerge from their burning reverie when night falls, but those will spend the rest of their lives in the Sanctuary. It’s as if when the sun takes their eyes, it takes their soul, devouring whoever they were as completely as any Harbinger.
The Eyeless wait and hope to throw themselves into the next Embrace, and meanwhile they spend their time murmuring contentedly about the Icon of Perfection’s blessing of senselessness, or the Rightful King of All Stars’ boundless glory… whatever that means. I only recall a few vague passages in the Cycles about other gods who hold the sky aloft around Claiasya’s cradle, great and fearful beings with no stake in our tiny human lives. Maybe I’d know more if my religious phase had lasted longer, or had focused on different things.
I’m not even sure if the Eyeless are the least fortunate of the Sun’s victims. If the horror stories they tell children to keep us as far from Embraces as possible are to be believed, a few simply burn to nothing where they stand. The embers flickering in their empty, cindered eye sockets rise and swallow them whole.
“Sorry,” Mide mumbles as she turns her back to the woman. I follow, and that’s that. Aisling’s right. There’s nothing we can do.
I can’t help but imagine those empty eyes as we leave her behind, though. I’ve seen plenty of things that are just as bad by now, but something about what happens to the Eyeless feels uniquely awful. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that there’s nothing anyone can do about the Embrace or just the way something so high above us, so distant, can ruin us if we simply glance at it for a few seconds too long. And why? For what? Does it mean anything to the Sun when someone loses themselves in its glare? Does it even notice? It’s the Sun. At least Harbingers seem to need something from their victims.
Not that the distinction matters much to those people. The dead aren’t there to feel anything about whatever destroyed them, and as far as we can tell, the Eyeless are as gone as any corpse.
“Stop here,” Aisling calls out, once we’ve wound off the streets and down the paved forest trails for a few more minutes. We’ve come to a part of the Weald where the terrain dips and swells with gently rolling hills. Shona jolts to a sudden halt, sending Aisling spinning around her for a few circles before momentum begins to treat them normally again, while Mide brakes with her spear in the thick grass just off the path.
“Uh, is this it?” Shona asks. “Just looks like more trees to me.”
Aisling shakes her head once, then points down the left fork in the trail ahead. “No, but it’s close. We should be more careful on the approach, in case there’s any risk of charging into a Wound. Eyna, keep watch for anything that feels strange. You two, stay a bit ahead and shout if anything looks off. Or sounds off, if you’re Shona.”
Shona grins and puffs herself up at that, but narrows her eyes shortly after. “Wait, why are we in front? I still don’t know where we’re going.”
“Same reason as always,” Mide says. “Because if we’re heading into trouble, you want the girl in the tacky armor who knows how to actually fight taking the brunt of it.”
“Oh yeah,” Shona says blandly. “Seriously though, shut up! Your armor’s awesome!”
“Let’s argue that point some more later. Or, you know, not.” Mide adjusts her visor, further shields her eyes with one arm — which continues to reflect the Embrace’s light in all directions — and starts toward the path on the left.
“Almost there,” Aisling calls out, a few minutes further down the path. Just ahead, the trail slopes smoothly upward, climbing a hill too tall to see over. “It’s just over the crest here. Eyna, are you getting anything?”
“Anyone else?” Aisling tries.
“Nope,” Shona says.
Mide silently shakes her head, then moves to peek over the top of the hill. She glances over whatever she sees for a few seconds, then steps back and waves Aisling up. “There’s no monsters I can see, just a girl. Not in the lake, but by the shore. Is she your friend?”
Aisling rushes to join Mide, peers off where she’s pointing, then lets out a long, slow sigh. “…Yes. That’s her,” she says, an anxious strain underlying the relief in her voice. “Alright… alright,” she half-whispers. “First off. Eyna? How’s she look to you? Can you sense her from here?”
I follow Aisling and Mide to the top of the hill, staying low to the ground after their example. So far, I haven’t felt anything out of place… well, other than the obvious, the ominous air of walking beneath the Sun’s shroud of light.
Over the hill, the ground soon slopes back down, and the woods open onto the grassy shore of a broad lake basin, stretching out in either direction to curve around a stout, steep mountain on the far side.
It’s immediately apparent how Missing Lake got its name. The water is clear enough that beneath the shimmering waves on its surface, it barely looks like anything is there at all — you can see right through it to the rocky bed below. At least, you can between the places where the light of the Solar Embrace reflects off it in long, rippling stretches of harsh glare. A few dozen feet ahead, grass gives way to rocky coast.
And far down that coast, but clearly visible in the distance, an auburn-haired girl in a green jacket and long hiking skirt rifles through the rocks, searching for something along the line just before the water meets the shore.
Isobel, the girl in Aisling’s photo. Aulunla’s witch.
The weight that’s been in my chest since we set out starts to lift. Whatever this girl is doing out here in the middle of an Embrace, whatever’s happened to her since I last saw her, at the very least she’s alive… no, I can’t relax just yet.
I reach out with my soul’s senses, but… those are the same senses the Sun whispers to me through, and I don’t know how to focus them directionally. I’ve always just opened them and taken in everything in my general area, with one complicated exception for the way Irakkia interacted with the idea of space. I don’t plan to find out what would happen if the sky stole my full attention. I pull back into myself until I can just detect Isobel’s soul, her lingering corruption and her health — which still feels untouched.
“I can’t get the full details from here. The Embrace is making it hard. But… she feels about the way she did last time. Corrupted without being damaged, if that makes sense.”
“Corrupted by the same Harbinger?” Aisling asks.
“Not sure. I… don’t think so. Wouldn’t make sense. But I don’t know how long a Harbinger’s stench can linger.”
“Okay,” she murmurs. “I’m… going to see if whatever’s going on is the kind of thing we can talk out. You three, wait here. Stay down. Be ready to intervene if anything fucky happens. I’ve got to try this, but I don’t want to take chances.”
“Gotcha,” Shona stage-whispers back. Mide and I just nod.
With that, Aisling stands, takes a long, deep, breath, and strides onto the shore. The rest of us press ourselves to the ground, wait, and watch.
“…Isobel?” she calls hesitantly.
“Hey, Ash,” Isobel answers immediately, without once looking up from the rocky riverside. Her shadow, hiding close to her body the way all shadows do beneath the Embrace, grows along the ground, splitting in six directions. Within seconds, it’s ceased to be a human silhouette at all, twisting into the shapes of emaciated hands, each tipped with six too-long, wire-thin fingers.
Isobel stands as her many shadows unfurl, turning as she does to glare straight up at me.
“Of all people, did you really have to bring Aulunla’s murderer along?”